Adam Bock might just be the Rene Magritte of contemporary playwrights. Like that Surrealist painter, he conjures a world that at first glance seems intensely real and discernible, but on further examination begins to feel like a strange figment of the imagination.
Steep Theatre, which previously produced Bock’s oddly sinister play, “The Receptionist,” is now presenting the Chicago premiere of “A Small Fire,” directed by Joanie Schultz. On the surface it is the portrait of a long-lived but unsatisfying marriage that is sent into a tailspin when the wife is suddenly struck by an unspecified disease that robs her of her senses very shortly before her daughter is to be married. But, as this woman herself asks at a crucial moment: Is it all just a dream?
When we first meet Emily Bridges (Melissa Riemer), she is in full control. A construction manager, who owns her own business, she is overseeing a big project and making firm decisions (in colorful language), in consultation with her trusted young foreman, Billy Fontaine (James Allen), a lively man with a passion for racing homing pigeons.
Emily is not at all happy about the marriage of her daughter, Jenny (Julia Siple), and makes her disapproval of her choice of a husband painfully clear. Gradually, we realize that her own unsatisfying marriage to John (Robert Koon), a warm-hearted but rather passive, dependent man who she describes as lacking imagination, is feeding her disapproval. And then Emily begins to undergo a terrifying transformation — losing her sense of smell, then taste, sight and hearing. And she becomes totally reliant on the kindness and devoted presence of her husband, a man she admits she does not love. As for John, he confesses to his daughter that he depends on Emily and has a terror of being alone.
Jenny begins to think she should postpone her wedding, but her mother insists she go through with it. We never meet the groom, but the reception comes to life primarily through John’s description of it to his wife.
As Emily grows more and more isolated, and cut off from all the things she could once control, John goes forward in a state of denial, caring tenderly for his wife. Jenny, unable to cope with the situation, declares her independence. And then something surprising (which cannot be divulged here) happens.
So, is “A Small Fire” just a dream (or a nightmare)? Or is it reality? Is life itself an illusion of sorts? Bock’s play leaves it up to the audience to decide. To be sure, nothing here is quite what it initially seems to be. Or perhaps it is.
Schultz’s deftly ambiguous direction is paired with the wholly committed truthfulness of her uniformly excellent cast. And designers Chelsea M. Warren (set), Heather Gilbert (lighting) and Thomas Dixon (haunting sound and original music), neatly support the tension between the real and the surreal in this short but provocative play.